Only a parliamentary charter will do for press regulation

The Privy Council must not crumble in the face of bullying

Chris Bryant
Friday 04 October 2013 20:30

The Privy Council is an anachronism. One thinks of quills and signet rings, seals and curtsies. It’s the UK’s appendix, a once vital part of the constitution, but now almost entirely redundant. Were it removed, all the remaining vital organs of the state would function perfectly adequately. Yet it persists. Cabinet members, plus a smattering of lesser ministers, bishops and judges are members for life. Although there are 600 members, just a few are invited at the PM’s discretion to each meeting. It is the last remaining absolute fiefdom of the Crown (aka the Government).

So, at the last meeting, in Windsor Castle in July, they amended the Guide Association’s charter, ended burials in five English churchyards, agreed the pattern for a new £5 silver coin, signed off measures for Jersey and Guernsey and received petitions for two new charters, one for the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers and the other for the Press Standards Board of Finance (Presbof) Limited.

Aye, there’s the rub. I was always suspicious of handing the matter of regulation of the press over to this antiquated, unregulated and autocratic body. I’d have preferred a democratically agreed act of parliament. The front door of parliament rather than the backdoor of Buckingham Palace.

But back in March, after deft and determined work by Ed Miliband, the Commons and Lords agreed on an all-party basis that a Royal Charter for a new regulator should be sealed at the next meeting of the Privy Council.

Since then there’s been much jiggery pokery. The Rothermere/Murdoch/Barclay Brothers axis wound themselves up into a Dacre-induced lather and produced their own charter. The Government got the collywobbles and invented some Privy Council rules that this one had to be considered first. Hence the Presbof petition in July. Next Wednesday, this will come to a head when I hope the Privy Council will reject the Presbof Charter and agree the parliamentary one.

The differences between the two are vital. Parliament insisted the regulator must have the power to require papers to print an apology and not just to do so on page 83 under the adverts for stairlifts. Presbof disagrees. It wants to keep the whole operation, including appointments to the regulator and the drafting of a new code entirely in its hands. But PCC-style self-regulation failed miserably. The Privy Council mustn’t crumble in the face of the bullies. Only parliament’s charter will do.

Still grim in Bosnia, but we’re trying

I’ve spent the week in Bosnia with two Labour, two Tory and one Lib Dem colleagues. It’s a depressing place. Eighteen years after the war, it feels as if ethnic cleansing has been rewarded as the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are firmly entrenched in their enclaves. A new generation is growing up in schools and towns that are less diverse than ever.

The beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge at Mostar has been rebuilt, but mutual distrust simmers away and the constitutional settlement that was brokered in the Dayton Peace Accord perpetuates the ethnic apartheid that means that one young woman we talked to cannot think of standing for election because she is a Croat living in a Bosniak area.

Meanwhile, the politicians blame the voters, the voters despise the politicians and passing the buck has become a national pastime.

The only signs of hope lie with the active (though increasingly weary) involvement of the international community, as the EU and the European Court of Human Rights have cajoled, bullied and bribed Bosnian politicians to break with past enmities. One thing is clear from the Cypriot experience: the EU cannot afford to allow Bosnia in until there is at least a process towards an ethnically blind constitution.

The UK plays the most forthright and energetic role of all the European embassies and many individual Brits are engaged, but one Bosniak politician looked simply amazed that Britain (“the country of Magna Carta,” as he put it) should even think of leaving the ECHR or the EU. “Do you want to be completely irrelevant in the region?” he asked.

These trips for MPs aren’t just freebies

As I was on the way to Heathrow on Monday morning I tweeted that I was off to Bosnia. Within seconds, back came an angry question, “who’s paying?” The answer, the Inter Parliamentary Union, and therefore, in part, the taxpayer, did not go down well.

But 99 years ago an assassination in Sarajevo led to the mud and blood of the Somme. British troops served in Bosnia trying to put an end to a bloody and barbaric war and we are still committed to the rapid reaction force in case everything flares up again. Indeed, as I had to point out to two Serb politicians who adamantly denied the fact, British troops died in action in Bosnia.

Of course, MPs could just read up about the Balkans, but having a few who have looked the likes of the shovel-handed Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik in the eyes is worthwhile.

Alcohol is less fun than I thought

This week saw the start of Macmillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober for October campaign. As it happens I’m just at the end of a similar six-week booze-cation. Party conference was an interesting affair as I realised every night about 11.30 that alcohol makes people talk baloney, aggressively and repetitively.

There were other things I learnt: most bars serve boring, unhealthy and expensive soft drinks; most orange juice served in Brighton doesn’t taste of oranges; non-drinkers can get very sanctimonious – and their regular drinking mates very pushy. And alcohol does not improve your singing ability.

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